Shirley Charlotte Brontë Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Shirley Charlotte Brontë

The following entry presents criticism of Brontë's novel Shirley (1849). See also, The Professor Criticism.

Charlotte Brontë's second published novel, Shirley (1849), followed by two years the very popular Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. In Shirley, Brontë abandoned first-person narration by the main female character—which she had successfully employed in the earlier effort and which would reappear in Villette (1853)—in favor of an omniscient third-person narrator and not one, but two, principle characters, Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone. In a further departure from her earlier success, Brontë moved out of the realm of the purely personal to include elements of the social and political as well. Set in Yorkshire during the time of the Luddite unrest—a labor movement that began in 1811-1812 in an effort to protect the interests of the working class—the novel consists of two narrative strands woven together, one involving the struggles of workers against mill owners, and the other involving the romantic entanglements of the two heroines.

Biographical Information

Despite Brontë's ambitious plan to write a grand romance against an industrial backdrop, she was forced to amend her original intentions several times during the course of the novel's production. Early on, she realized the potential embarrassment she would cause her minister father, not to mention the actual danger to herself, if she were to set her new novel amid the Chartist unrest of her own time and region as she had originally planned. (The Chartists were nineteenth-century political reformers who championed the causes of the working class.) Accordingly, she retreated to an earlier period of social upheaval, the 1811-1812 Luddite disturbances, and to another place, the Heavy Woollen District of the West Riding. But progress on the novel was halted again when Charlotte's brother Branwell died in September, 1848, followed soon thereafter by sister Emily's illness and subsequent death in December. The author had scarcely resumed her work when her remaining sibling, sister Anne, became ill and died in May, 1849. Fortunately, completion of Shirley became came both escape and therapy for Charlotte, but numerous critics have speculated on the effect the family's multiple tragedies had on the finished product, most notably, on the fate of Caroline Helstone, a character loosely based on Anne.

Plot and Major Characters

Shirley begins as Robert Moore, a Yorkshire mill operator, awaits a shipment of machinery which arrives in pieces, smashed by angry workers protesting the loss of jobs to mechanization. Although he is determined to become successful in order to restore his family's honor and fortune, Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to the continuing labor unrest, but even more so to the Napoleonic Wars and the accompanying Orders in Council which forbid British merchants from trading in American markets. Robert is unmoved by the plight of workers whose jobs are being eliminated and is so completely focused on profits that he rejects the idea of marriage to his distant kinswoman, the penniless Caroline Helstone, in favor of a proposal to the title character, a rich heiress. Shirley Keeldar, a strong independent woman who relishes her role as land owner and mill owner, ultimately rejects Robert's proposal, but not before the unhappy Caroline has suffered through what she imagines to be the courtship of her beloved Robert and her dearest friend. Caroline, poor but respectable, has no other prospects for either marriage or employment, since all professions except that of governess are closed to women. The daughter of an absent mother and an abusive father, Caroline has found refuge, such as it is, with her clergyman uncle, who ignores her. After Robert's rejection, Caroline retreats to this loveless home and begins to waste away until Shirley restores her to health by reuniting Caroline with her long-lost mother, Mrs. Pryor. Shirley, meanwhile, is in love with Robert's brother Louis, a poor tutor, but her pride prevents her from expressing those feelings. Louis, in turn, is similarly restrained from declaring his love for her by pride and fear of rejection by a woman whose means are considerably greater than his own. Events on the industrial front are brought to a head when Robert is shot by a member of the opposing faction. During his recovery, he learns what it is like to be at the mercy of another, to be treated as an object, to be totally dependent—the very status of his workers in relationship to Robert himself. This role reversal, along with the end of the war and the revocation of the Orders in Council, both of which alleviate Robert's financial difficulties, bring about enormous changes in the man. By the novel's end, Robert is reunited with Caroline and is eager to provide work for all the poor and hungry who want it. The communication problems between Shirley and Louis are finally overcome, and the headstrong Shirley submits to Louis as her "master." The novel ends with a double wedding.

Major Themes

Despite the novel's conventional happy ending featuring the marriage of both principle female characters, Shirley is nonetheless a powerful indictment of the position of women in nineteenth-century England. That their dependent status is a source of misery is evident in the initial fate of Caroline Helstone, who, like the Brontë sisters themselves, has neither dowry with which to secure a husband nor any respectable means of earning a living without one. The novel's other female characters offer no role models for Caroline, either inside or outside the married state; the married women are abused or ignored, while the spinsters are impoverished and embittered. The plight of women dependent on men for their survival is similar to the plight of workers dependent on the mill owners for theirs. Although the novel's treatment of its social and political theme is ambiguous—on the one hand sympathizing with the workers, while on the other fiercely defending the property rights of the owners—in the end, it seems to deplore inequality and exploitation for both women and workers.

Critical Reception

For those critics who praised Jane Eyre, Shirley was a disappointment. G. H. Lewes's 1850 piece in the Edinburgh Review, claiming that the second publication is "inferior in several important points," is perhaps the most famous of these early negative assessments. Lewes denounced the characters as "not true" and the plot as devoid of unity and coherence. This latter point—that the political events and the personal events in Shirley are unconnected—was then repeated by several other critics. More recent criticism, though, has refuted this charge by pointing out that the condition of the female characters and women in general is itself a political theme and that the common plight of oppressed women and oppressed workers provides the unifying connection. Another critic claims that there are actually three narrative threads in Shirley—dealing with religion, work, and romantic love—and that each represents a means of coping with life's hardships. Still others suggest that Brontë's alleged failure to successfully reconcile the public and private realms was deliberate, an acknowledgment, in fact, that life is complex and that truth is relative. In recent years, Shirley, along with Brontë's other work, has received a great deal of attention from feminist critics, some of whom praise it as an early feminist text, and others who denounce the apparent capitulation of the female characters to the constraints of marriage at novel's end. At least one critic has even suggested that the aforementioned disunity is a result of Brontë's failure to follow through on the novel's promise of providing a viable alternative to the limited possibilities for women at that time. The tragic events in Brontë's life during the time she was working on the novel have prompted several critics to suggest that the allegedly flawed ending is a direct result of those events. Speculation abounds that Caroline Helstone was never intended to recover and marry, but Charlotte, having just attended her third deathbed vigil in less than a year—this time for Anne, on whom Caroline is partly based—was unwilling or unable to see her character suffer the same fate as her sister. Many critics believe Shirley would have been a better novel if Brontë had adhered to her original plan.